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Don’t let agencies break promises about new wells

Have you ever been played for a fool?

Go to that place with me. Which was worse: the anger that dawned on you upon realizing you’d been had or the shame in admitting you had let it happen?

I hate to bear bad news, but if you care about any of the following – the HD Mountains, government accountability or unchecked oil and gas development on public lands – you have just been had.

Not many years ago, this community fought hard to keep gas and oil out of old-growth ponderosa stands and roadless areas in the HD Mountains. While the campaign did not lay claim to complete victory, major concessions were extracted that greatly curtailed drilling plans.

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management ultimately prevailed over a number of legal challenges by assuring the court – and the public – that additional environmental due diligence and public input would be a requirement for each new well proposed in areas of unique ecological value.

Imagine our surprise, then, when San Juan Citizens Alliance staff members learned the Forest Service plans to approve new natural-gas wells affecting old-growth ponderosa and roadless areas in the HDs using just a Categorical Exclusion.

What the heck’s a Categorical Exclusion? Let me try and decode this strange bureaucratic language for you. A Categorical Exclusion means Forest Service employees have decided that no additional environmental scrutiny or public input is needed. They will use their discretion to approve these wells, thank you very much.

OK. Just one (really big) problem with this use of administrative discretion. The Forest Service kind of – wait, no – the Forest Service and BLM directly, in writing and in oral arguments in front of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, said they wouldn’t do exactly the thing they’re now trying to do.

I’m not easily rendered speechless, but this one had me teetering on the edge of wordlessness.

How should we, the public, interpret this unexpected turn of events? Because it’s inconceivable that our local federal land agencies purposefully misled the court and the public to win a legal case, there must be another explanation.

I’ve got it. Maybe the government and its entire cadre of lawyers have been struck with a convenient and highly contagious case of amnesia. Let’s just say that’s the reason: They forgot.

We all make mistakes, so who am I to judge? Judgment aside, on behalf of SJCA members, the Court of Appeals and everyone who wants to take the word of federal officials at face value, let me extend a reminder to the Forest Service and BLM of their explicit commitment to additional environmental analysis and public input before any determination is made regarding the permitting of these seven wells.

Better yet – tell them yourself. Visit the Alliance’s website for information about how to comment on the agencies’ forgotten commitments.

danolson@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Olson is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

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